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Tomorrow’s world

The supercomputer that could hack the world

Joe Biden with an IBM quantum computer. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

Imagine a computer that could bypass pretty much all encryption on the planet, says Zach Montague in The New York Times. It could unlock sensitive government and commercial information, on everything from military intelligence and weapon designs to banking data. It could enable bad actors to take control of stock exchanges, manipulate GPS signals and hack into critical infrastructure like nuclear power plants and the power grid. This may all sound like science fiction. But quantum computing – using the bizarre behaviour of subatomic particles to create an ultra-powerful processor – could do exactly that. Scientists already have a name for when this terrifying machine is built: “Q-Day”.

Boffins have been trying to build quantum computers for years – the joke is that they are always about a decade from being ready. If it ever does arrive, the technology would bring “radical benefits” to fields such as chemistry, material sciences and AI. But the risk they pose to cybersecurity is enormous. The US and others are already trying to create quantum-protected encryption systems. The likes of China and Russia are thought to be gathering and storing “troves of data” that they cannot access yet, but will be able to once they have an advanced quantum machine. “It may be that there’s only a 1% chance of that happening,” says Glenn Gerstell, a former general counsel of the US National Security Agency. “But a 1% chance of something catastrophic is something you need to worry about.”